WASHINGTON — Competition in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will probably get a little thinner in the fourth round, an agency official said here July 30.

“I don’t believe we are going to be able to carry three in the next round,” Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, told the NASA Advisory Council’s (NAC) Human Exploration and Operations Committee during a meeting at NASA headquarters here. “I think two would probably be sufficient to maintain competition.”

NASA currently is carrying three teams under its effort to replace the space shuttle’s crew-carrying capacity to the international space station with privately designed spacecraft. Two of those teams, Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), were awarded $460 million and $440 million, respectively, last August to develop rival capsules. A third team, Sierra Nevada Corp., was awarded $212.5 million, an amount NASA acknowledged would put the Louisville, Colo.-based firm’s winged spaceplane design on a trailing development schedule. 

The reason NASA only expects to carry two teams beyond next summer, as more senior NASA officials have said, is the budget. Congress to date has been unwilling to fund the program anywhere close to the roughly $800 million a year NASA says it needs to keep multiple teams on track to offer crew transportation services by 2017. While  Congress approved $525 million for the program for 2013, across the board spending cuts known as sequestration would leave NASA with less than $500 million to spend on the effort this year. NASA proposed in May shifting funds from other programs to boost commercial crew spending back up to $525 million, but that proposal — known as an operating plan — has yet to be approved by NASA’s congressional oversight committees.

NASA’s 2014 budget request — sent to Congress in April — seeks $821 million for commercial crew. If NASA does not get the big increase it is seeking for the program, McAlister said, NASA may not be able to meet its goal of getting at least one commercial crew system flying in 2017.

“It’ll slow us down,” he told the NAC.

NASA on July 19 released the draft solicitation for the next round of the Commercial Crew Program, a certification phase expected to include the first crewed space launch from U.S. soil since July 8, 2011, when the last space shuttle missions left the pad.

NASA will meet with industry on Aug. 1-2 to gather feedback about the draft Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) solicitation, then issue a final solicitation in October. CCtCap proposals would be due by December, with an award expected next summer, McAlister said.

Bidders will have to propose at least one crewed flight to the international space station under CCtCap in order to be eligible for follow-on task orders.

“We’re saying at least one to the [international space station] … in order to get certified,” McAlister said. “I anticipate all the partners will propose additional test flights.”

NASA intends to book astronaut flights from certified providers via task orders, each of which would be for between two and six “post-certification missions,” according to the CCtCap draft solicitation. CCtCap also allows NASA to book cargo deliveries from certified providers, although “[t]his is not intended to be a replacement for existing cargo services,” such as the Commercial Resupply Services agreements NASA already has with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., according to the draft solicitation. 

Meanwhile, around the time NASA expects to be making CCtCap awards, the agency will have to make a decision on whether to book seats for its astronauts aboard Soyuz spacecraft launching after June 2017, the latest date for which NASA has arranged rides for its space station crew members.

In April, NASA announced it had booked six round trips to the space station aboard Soyuz for about $70 million apiece. The deal is an extension of NASA’s existing contract with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.

Soyuz bookings have a 36-month lead time, so arranging flights beyond June 2017 will require NASA to take action next year, Sam Scimemi, director of the international space station program at NASA headquarters, told members of the NAC’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee July 29.

Between the budget, the impending decision about more Soyuz seats and the fact that the aging space station to which the Commercial Crew Program’s fate is tethered has not yet been approved to fly beyond 2020, the debate about NASA’s Commercial Crew procurement plans turned passionate on July 30.

As McAlister made the case for maintaining as much competition as possible in a Commercial Crew Program that has never been funded at the level NASA says is necessary, Richard Kohrs, the former deputy director of the space shuttle program who now chairs the NAC committee McAlister spoke to, appeared to reach the limit of his patience.

Flying in 2017 is “a goal,” McAlister said. On the other hand, “it’s actually a requirement for the program, it’s an objective, that they [the contractors] produce safe, reliable and cost effective [transportation systems]. I believe competition supports all three of those simultaneously.”

“You want safe reliable transportation, don’t f— up,” Kohrs replied. “Let’s go do this goddamn thing for 20 years! We’ll be safe and reliable, you won’t have any problems.”

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...